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Being a Writer vs.

Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals

Author(s): Peter Elbow
Source: College Composition and Communication, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 72-83
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
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College Composition and Communication.


Being a Writer vs.

Being an Academic:
A Conflict in Goals

that I am wrong, but I fear that there is a
conflict between the role of writer and that
of academic. I wish there were not. In this essay I will explore how this
conflict plays out in a first year writing class. But it will be obvious that I
see the issue lurking in a larger dimension-even autobiographically.I am
an academic and I am a writer. I've struggled to be able to make those
claims, and I am proud of both identities-but I sometimes feel them in
conflict. Thus I'm talking here about the relationship between two rolestwo ways of being in the world of texts. It is my wish that students should
be able to inhabit both roles comfortably.
Note that I'm talking here about roles, not professions. That is, I'm not
trying to get first year students to commit to making their living by
writing-nor to get a Ph.D. and join the academy. But I would insist that
it's a reasonable goal for my students to end up saying, "I feel like I am a
writer: I get deep satisfaction from discovering meanings by writing-figuring out what I think and feel through putting down words; I naturally
turn to writing when I am perplexed-even when I am just sad or happy;
I love to explore and communicate with others through writing; writing is
an important part of my life." Similarly,I would insist that it's a reasonable
goal for my students to end up saying, "Ifeel like I am an academic: reading
knowledgeable books, wrestling my way through important issues with
fellows, figuring out hard questions-these activities give me deep satisfaction and they are central to my sense of who I am." In short, I want my
PeterElbowteaches at UMass Amherst, and has taught at MIT,Franconia College, Evergreen
State College, and SUNY Stony Brook-where he directed the writing program. He has just
edited a volume in the HermagorasPressLandmarkEssaysSeries whose title sums up a current
and longstanding interest, Writingand Voice.And he continues to work on assessment and


CCC46.1/February 1995

Elbow/Writervs. Academic


first year students to feel themselves as writers and feel themselves as

Of course these are idealistic goals; many students will not attain them.
But I insist on them as reasonable goals for my teaching, because if I taught
well and if all the conditions for learning were good, I believe all my
students couldachieve them. I don't mind high or distant goals. But I'm
troubled by a sense that they conflict with each other-that progress
toward one could undermine progress toward the other. A distant mountain is a good guide for walking-even if I know I won't get to the top. But
I feel as though I am trying to walk toward two different mountains.
In this dilemma, my first and strongest impulse is to be adversarialand
fight for the role of the writer against the role of the academic. And I can't
pretend I am doing otherwise here. But I'm also trying to resist that
adversarial impulse. I'd like to celebrate academics-the other half of my
own identity. If we don't celebrate academics, no one else will. Therefore
I'll try to hold myself open so David or others of you can persuade me that
I am misguided in my sense of conflict. Perhaps you can persuade me that
if I would only make certain changes I could serve both goals well. Or
better yet, perhaps you can assure me that I'm already serving both goals
now and my only problem is my feeling of conflict. For I wish I didn't see
things this way. Everyone says, "Don't give in to binary thinking. Take a
cold shower, take a walk around the block." But I see specific conflicts in
how to design and teach my first year writing course. And since I feel
forced to choose-I choose the goal of writer over that of academic.
Let me now explore specific points of conflict in my designing and teaching
of a first year writing course-conflicts between my attempts to help
students see themselves as academics and see themselves as writers. But
my first two points will be false alarms: places where I and others have
sometimes been temptedto see a conflict but where careful examination
shows me there is none. Perhaps some of the other conflicts can be
similarly diffused.
(1) Sometimes I've felt a conflict about what we should readin the first
year writing course. It would seem as though in order to help students see
themselves as academics I should get them to read "key texts": good
published writing, important works of cultural or literary significance;
strong and important works. However if I want them to see themselves as
writers, we should primarily publish and read their own writing.
In my first year writing class I take the latter path. I publish a class
magazine about four times a semester, each one containing a finished piece
by all the students. (I'm indebted to Charlie Moran for showing me how



to do this-supporting the practice with a lab fee for the course.) We often
discuss and write about these magazines. This may be the single most
important feature of the course that helps students begin to experience
themselves as members of a community of writers.
But on reflection, I don't think there is any conflict here. It's not an
either/or issue. To read both strong important published texts and the
writing of fellow students serves both my goals. Academics read key texts
and the writing of colleagues; so do writers. In short, I think I could and
probably should read some strong important published works in my first
year course. I would never give up using the magazines of students' own
writing, but that needn't stop me from also reading at least some of the
other kind of texts.
(2) Just as I see no conflict about what to read in my first year course,
so too about how to read these texts. That is, whether I want my students
to be academics or writers, it seems crucial to avoid coming at key texts (or
at student texts) as models. That is, I must fight the tradition of treating
these readings as monuments in a museum, pieces under glass. We must
try to come at these strong important texts:-no matter how good or
hallowed they may be-as much as possible as fellow writers-as fully
eligible members of the conversation: not treat them as sacred; not worry
about "doingjustice" to them or getting them dirty. To be blunt, I must be
sure not to "teach" these texts (in the common sense of that term), but
rather to "have them around" to wrestle with, to bounce off of, to talk
about and talk from, to write about and write from. Again: not feel we
must be polite or do them justice. In taking this approach I think we would
be treating texts the way academics and writers treat them: using them
rather than servingthem. (I take this as one of the lessons of David's Facts,
Artifacts,and Counterfacts.)
(3) But even if there is no conflict about what to read and how to read,
I do see a problem when it comes to the question of how much to read. If
my goal is to help my students experience themselves as academics, surely
I should spend at least as much time reading as writing. Academics are
readers. But I don't. I always spend much more of our time writing than
reading. I even spend a significant amount of class time writing. Writing in
class helps me not just sanction, dignify, and celebrate writing; it helps me
frankly coach students in various concrete practices and techniques and
approaches toward getting words on paper. I could weasel and say that
writing is reading-what with all that crucial reading over what you
write-and so I'm really serving both goals by emphasizing writing. But
academics don't just read over what they write. This is a blunt issue of
emphasis: In my course there is a clear emphasis on writing over reading.

Elbow/Writervs. Academic


It's not that I care absolutely more about writing than reading. I'm
simply saying that virtually every other course privileges reading over
writing-treats input as central and output as serving input. My only hope,
it seems to me, of making students experience themselves as writers while
they are in the academy-and a slim hope at that-means hanging on to
at least one course where writing is at the center. When other courses in
the university make writing as important as reading, I'll respond with a
comparable adjustment and give reading equal spotlight in my first year
course. I might even make that adjustment if only English department
courses made writing as important as reading, but of course they don't.
Isn't it odd that most English courses study and honor writing (literature),
but seldom treat the act of writing as central? The only course that tends
to make writing central is the one course that most English faculty don't
want to teach.
(4) But let me tighten the screw a bit. I've been talking as though
everything would be dandy if only we had more time, or at least divided
up the time equally-as though the interests of reading and writing do not
inherently conflict. But I can't help sensing that they do. And I would
contend that academics have come to identify with the interests of reading-often identifying themselves against writing.
Let me spell out some of the conflicts I see between the interests of
writers and the interests of academics-as-readers.'To put it bluntly, readers
and writers have competing interests over who gets to control the text. It's
in the interests of readers to say that the writer's intention doesn't matter
or is unfindable, to say that meaning is never determinate, always fluid and
sliding, to say that there is no presence or voice behind a text; and finally
to kill off the author! This leaves the reader in complete control of the text.
It's in the interests of writers, on the other hand, to have readers
actually interested in what was on their mind, what they intended to say,
reading for intention. As writers we often fail to be clear, but it helps us if
readers will just have some faith that our authorial meanings and intentions can be found. It helps to listen caringly. If we are lost in the woods,
we have a better chance of being found if the searchers think we exist, care
deeply about us, and feel there is hope of finding us. And it goes without
saying, writers are interested in staying alive. Writers also have interest in
ownershipof the text-and, as with "killing,"I want to take this metaphor
seriously: Writers have a concrete interest in monetary payment for their
labor. But of course the metaphorical meaning is important too. Writers
usually want some "ownership,"some say, some control over what a text
means. Almost all writers are frustratedwhen readers completely misread
what they have written. It doesn't usually help if the readers say, "But the



latest theory says that we get to construct our own meaning." Of course
there are exceptions here: Some writers say, "I don't care what meaning
readers see in my words," but more often it is writers who celebrate
presence and readers absence.
Let me be more concrete by using this very text as illustration. I get to
decide what I intendedwith my words; you get to decide what you heard.
But the question of what I "said,"what meanings are "in" my text-that
is a site of contention between us. And we see this fight everywhere, from
the law courts to the bedrooms: "But I said... " / "No you didn't, you said

" Academics in English are the only people I know who seem to think

that the speaker/writer has no party in such discussions.

We see this contest between readers and writers played out poignantly
in the case of student texts. The academic is reader and grader and always
gets to decide what the student text means. No wonder students withdraw
ownership and commitment. I can reinforce my point by looking at what
happens when the tables are turned and academics produce text for a
student audience-that is, lecturing extensively in class. Here the academic
also turns the ownership rules upside down and declares that in this case
the writer-lecturer gets to decide what the text means.
Is this just a story of readers being mean and disrespectful to writers?
No, it goes both ways. Among writers, there is perhaps even a longer
tradition of disdain for readers. (And also, of course, of disdain for academics.) Writersoften say, "Readersare not my main audience. Sometimes the
audience that I write for is me. For some pieces I don't even carewhether
readers always understand or appreciate everything I write. Sometimes I
even write privately. What do readers know!" In response, readers often
say, "What do writers know? We're in a much better position than they
are to read the text. Let's not be put off by writers' wishful thinking.
Intention is a will o' the wisp. Never trust the teller, trust the tale."
In short, where writers are tempted to think they are most important,
readers and academics are tempted to think they are the most important
party. Readers and academics like to insist that there is no such thing as
private writing or writing only for the self. (See, for example, Jeanette
Harris, ExpressiveWriting,SMU Press, 1990, 66.) Readers like to imagine
that writers are always thinking about them; they are like children who
naturally think their parents always have them in mind. Some readers
even want to see everything that writers write. But writers, like parents,
need some time away from the imperious demands of readers-need some
time when they can just forget about readers and think about themselves.
Yes, writers must acknowledge that in the end readers get to decide
whether their words will be read or bought-just as parents know that in

Elbow/Writervs. Academic


the end the child's interests must come first. But smart writers and parents
know that they do a better job of serving these demanding creatures if they
take some time for themselves.
(5) Another collision of interests between writers and readers. Writers
testify all the time to the experience of knowing more than they can say,
of knowing things that they haven't yet been able to get into words.
Paying attention to such intuitions and feelings often leads them to articulations they couldn't otherwise find. Readers (and teachers and academics), on the other hand, being on the receiving end of texts, are more
tempted to say, "Ifyou can't say it, you don't know it"-and to celebrate
the doctrine that all knowledge is linguistic. (Painters, musicians and
dancers also have the temerity to question academics who proclaim that if
you can't say it in language you don't know it and it doesn't count as
In my first year writing course I feel this conflict between the interests
of readers and writers. Yes, my larger self wants them to feel themselves as
readers and academics, but this goal seems to conflict with my more
pressing hunger to help them feel themselves as writers. That is, I can't
help wanting my students to have some of that uppitiness of writers
toward readers. I want them to be able to say, "I'm not just writing for
teachers or readers, I'm writing as much for me-sometimes even morefor
me." I want them to fight back a bit against readers. I want them to care
about their intentions and to insist that readers respect them. I try to
respect those intentions and see them-and assume I often can. Yes, I'll
point out where these intentions are badly realized, but if my goal is to
make students feel like writers, my highest priority is to show that I've
understoodwhat they're saying. It's only my second priority to show them
where I had to struggle.
I want to call attention to this central pedagogical point that writers
often understand and readers and academics and teachers often don't: The
main thing that helps writers is to be understood; pointing out misunderstandings is only the second need. Thus-and this is a crucial consequence-I assume that students know more than they are getting into
words. Most of my own progress in learning to write has come from my
gradually learning to listen more carefully to what I haven't yet managed
to get into words-and respecting the idea that I know more than I can
say. This stance helps me be willing to find time and energy to wrestle it
into words. The most unhelpful thing I've had said to me as a student and
writer is, "Ifyou can't say it, you don't know it."
Imagine, then, how different our classrooms would be if all academics
and teachers felt themselves to be writers as much as readers.


CCC46/February 1995

(6) Here is a related point of conflict between the role of academic and
writer. What kind of attitude about language shall I try to instill in first year
students in a writing course? If my goal is to get them to take on the role
of academic, I should get them to distrust language. It is a central tenet of
academic thinking in this century that language is not a clear and neutral
medium through which we can see undistorted nonlinguistic entities.
But in my desire to help my students experience themselves as writers
I find myself in fact trying to help them trustlanguage-not to question
it-or at least not to question it for long stretches of the writing process: to
hold off distrust till they revise. Some people say this is good advice only
for inexperienced and blocked writers, but I think I see it enormously
helpful to myself and to other adult, skilled, and professional writers.
Striking benefits usually result when people learn that decidedly unacademic capacity to turn off distrust or worry about language and learn
instead to forget about it, not see it, look through it as through a clear
window, and focus all attention on one's experience of what one is trying
to say. Let me quote a writer, William Stafford, about the need to trust
language and one's experience:
My mainplea is for the value of an unafraid,face-down,flailing,and speedy
processin usingthe language.
Just as any reasonableperson who looks at water, and passesa hand
throughit, can see that it would not hold a personup;so it is the judgment
of common sense people that relianceon the weak materialof students'
experiencescannotpossiblysustaina workof literature.Butswimmersknow
that if they relaxon the waterit will proveto be miraculouslybuoyant;and
writers know that a successionof little strokes on the materialnearest
them-without any prejudgmentsaboutthe specificgravityof the topic or
the reasonablenessof their expectations-will result in creativeprogress.
Writersare personswho write;swimmersare (and from teachinga childI
know how hardit is to persuadea reasonablepersonof this)-swimmers are
personswho relaxin the water,let theirheadsgo down, and reachout with
ease and confidence. (WritingtheAustralianCrawl:Viewson the Writer'sVocation.
Ann Arbor:U of Michigan P, 1978, 22-23.)

(7) A large area of conflict: How shall I teach my students to place

themselvesin the universe of other writers? Insofar as I want them to
internalize the role of academic, I should teach my students always to
situate themselves and what they have to say in the context of important
writers who have written on the subject: to see the act of writing as an act
of finding and acknowledging one's place in an ongoing intellectual conversation with a much larger and longer history than what goes on in this

Elbow/Writervs. Academic


classroom during these ten or fourteen weeks. In short, I should try to

enact and live out in my classroom the Burkean metaphor of intellectual
life as an unending conversation. This is what we academics do: carry on
an unending conversation not just with colleagues but with the dead and
But the truth is (should I hang my head?) I don't give this dimension to
my first year writing classroom. I don't push my first year students to think
about what academics have written about their subject; indeed much of
my behavior is a kind of invitation for them to pretendthat no authorities
have ever written about their subject before.
It might sound as though I invite only monologicdiscourse and discourage dialogicdiscourse. That'snot quite right. I do invite monologic discourse
(in spite of the current fashion of using "monologic" as the worst moral
slur we can throw at someone), but I invite and defend dialogic discourse
just as much. That is, I encourage students to situate what they write into
the conversation of other members of the classroom community to whom
they are writing and whom they are reading. Let me mention that the
regular publication of the class magazine does more for this dialogic dimension than any amount of theoretical talk. I often assign papers aboutthe
class publication. In short, I find it helpful to invite students to see their
papers as dialogic-parts of a conversation or dialogue; and I also find it
crucial to assign dialogues and collaborative papers. But I also find it
helpful to invite them to see their papers as monologues or soliloquies. My
point here is that both academics and writers seem to me to engage in both
monologic and dialogic discourse. (By the way, the classroom publication
of student writing also helps me with another kind of "situating"-that is,
I try quietly to find moments where I can invite students to be more aware
of the positions from which they write-as men or women-as members
of a race or class, or as having a sexual orientation.)2
In short, the real question or point of conflict here, then, is not so much
about whether I should get my first year students to feel their writing as
monologue or dialogue, whether to get them to speak to other voices or
not, or to recognize their own positions or not. I'm working for both sides
in each case. Rather it's a larger more general question: Whether I should
invite my first year students to be self-absorbed and see themselves at the
center of the discourse-in a sense, credulous; or whether I should invite
them to be personally modest and intellectually scrupulous and to see
themselves as at the periphery-in a sense, skeptical and distrustful. I
recently read an academic critique of a writer for being too self-absorbed,
of reading his subjectivity too much into the object he was allegedly
examining, of being imperial, arrogant-practicing analysis by means of


CCC46/February 1995

autobiography.I have to admit that I want first year students in my writing

class to do that. I think autobiography is often the best mode of analysis.
I'm afraid that I invite first year students to fall into the following sins: to
take their own ideas too seriously; to think that they are the first person to
think of their idea and be all wrapped up and possessive about it-even
though others might have already written better about it-I invite them to
write as though they are a central speaker at the center of the universerather than feeling, as they often do, that they must summarize what
others have said and only make modest rejoinders from the edge of the
conversation to all the smart thoughts that have already been written. (By
the way, I was trained by good New Criticsin the 1950s who often tried to
get me to write as though no one else had ever written about the work I
was treating. Therefore we cannot call this intellectual stance "nonacademic." New Critics may be out of fashion but no one could call them
anything but full fledged academics-indeed their distinguishing mark in
comparison to their predecessors was heightened professionalism in literary studies.)
Perhaps this sounds condescending-as though I am not treating my
students seriously enough as smart adults. I hope not. When I come across
a really strong and competent first year writer who is being too arrogant
and full of himself or herself and unwilling to listen to other voices-then
in my feedback I instinctively lean a bit on that student: "Waita minute.
You're talking as though yours are the only feelings and thoughts on this
matter; have you ever considered looking to see what X and Y have said?
You will have no credibility till you do." And obviously, when students
startto work in their disciplinarymajor, of course I am happy to force them
to situate their writing among all the key positions in the conversation of
that discipline. But grandstanding, taking themselves too seriously, and
seeing themselves as the center of everything-I don't see these as the
characteristicsins of first year students.
Admittedly, first year students often suffer from a closely related sin:
naivete. For being naive and taking oneself too seriously can look alike and
can take the same propositional form: implying simultaneously, "Everyone
else is just like me" and "No one else in the universe has ever thought my
thoughts or felt my feelings." But when we see a paper with these problematic assumptions, we should ask ourselves: Is this really a problem of
the writer taking herself too seriously and being too committed and selfinvested in her writing? or is it a problem of the writer, though perhaps
glib, being essentially timid and tapping only a small part of her thinking
and feeling? When I get a strongly felt, fully committed, arrogant paper I
am happy to wrestle and try to get tough with the writer. But so often with

Elbow/Writer vs. Academic


first year students it is the latter: timidity and lack of deep entwinement in
what they are writing.
Am I just being naive? Maybe. In any case let me openly acknowledge
an arguable assumption underneath all this. I sense it is the distinguishing
feature of writers to take themselves too seriously. Writing is a struggle and
a risk. Why go to the bother unless what we say feels important? None of
us who has a full awareness of all the trouble we can get into by writing
would ever write by choice unless we also had a correspondingly full sense
of pride, self-absorption, even arrogance. Most first year students have a
strong sense of the trouble they can get into with writing, but they tend to
lack that writer's corresponding gift for taking themselves too seriouslypridein the importance of what they have to say. Look at our experience
parenting: Most parents know instinctively that their job is to help their
children take themselves more seriously, not less seriously. Once a student
can really begin to own and care about her ideas, that will lead naturally
to the necessary combat-which will lead to some cultural sophistication
in itself.
(8) Here is my last brief point of conflict between the role of writer and
academic. We all know that when students write to teachers they have to
write "up"to an audience with greater knowledge and authority than the
writer has about her own topic. The student is analyzing "To His Coy
Mistress"for a reader who understands it better than she does. (Worse yet,
the teacher/reader is often looking for a specific conclusion and form in the
paper.) Even if the student happens to have a better insight or understanding than the teacher has, the teacher gets to define her own understanding as right and the student's as wrong. Thus the basic subtext in a
piece of student writing is likely to be, "Isthis okay?"
In contrast to students, the basic subtext in a writer's text is likely to be,
"Listento me, I have something to tell you," for writers can usually write
with more authority than their readers. Therefore, unless we can set things
up so that our first year students are often telling us about things that they
know better than we do, we are sabotaging the essential dynamic of
writers. We are transforming the process of "writing"into the process of
"beingtested." Many of the odd writing behaviors of students make perfect
sense once we see that they are behaving as test-takers rather than writers.
How about academics on this score? It would seem as though they
would have at least as strong an authority stance as writers do. After all,
the academic in her writing has done a piece of research or reflection as a
professional and is usually saying things that her readers do not know. But
look again. I think you'll notice a curious resemblance between how
students write to their teacher-readers and how academics write to their


CCC46/February 1995

colleague-readers-even if the academic is a tenured professor. Yes, the

academic may have data, findings, or thoughts that are news; yet the
paradigm transaction in academic writing is one where the writer is conveying those data, findings, or thoughts to authorities in the field whose
job is to decide whether they are acceptable. These authorities get to decide
whether the writing counts as important or true-whether it is valid-and
ultimately whether it counts as knowledge. Have you ever noticed that
when we write articles or books as academics, we often have the same
feeling that students have when they turn in papers: "Is this okay? Will
you accept this?" But damn it, I want my first year students to be saying
in their writing, "Listento me, I have something to tell you" not "Is this
okay? Will you accept this?"
Of course some academics manage to send the strong perky message,
"Listen to me, I have something to tell you." But the structure of the
academy tends to militate against that stance. And of course the structure
of the classroom and the grading situation militate even more heavily
against it. Therefore I feel I have a better chance of getting my students to
take that forthright stance toward readers and their material if I do what I
can to make them feel like writers, and avoid setting things up to make
them feel like academics.
Conclusion. Behind this paper, then, I'm really asking a larger cultural
question: Is there a conflict in general-apart from first year students or
students in general-between the role of writer and the role of academic?
Perhaps my categories are oversimple, but I confess I'm talking also about
my own experience. I'm proud of being both an academic and a writer,
partly because I've had to struggle on both counts. I'd like to inhabit both
roles in an unconflicted way, but I feel a tug of war between them.
I suspect that if we could be more sensible about how we create and
define the roles of academic and writer in our culture, the conflict might
not be necessary. I have the feeling that the role of academic as we see it
suffers narrowness for not containing more of what I have linked to the
role of writer. Frankly, I think there are problems with what it means to
be an academic. If academics were more like writers-wrote more, turned
to writing more, enjoyed writing more-I think the academic world would
be better. David, on the other hand, probably believes that the role of
writer suffers narrowness for not containing more of what I have associated with the role of academic. So the conflict plays itself out. I am ready
to try to be more wise about these roles. I suppose the obvious problem is
that I define writer in too "romantic"a fashion. I stand by-nervouslytrying to hold myself open to correction on this point. But are you going

Elbow/Writer vs. Academic


to make me give up all the features of the role of writer that seem helpful
and supportive? I hope you won't make the role of writer more astringent
and trying than it already is.3
1. I am indebted here to a valuable unpublished paper about Polanyi by Elizabeth
Wallace at Oregon State University.
2. It might sound as though my emphasis on student writing means that I'm keepvoices out of the classroom,
ing authoritative
but I'm not. It's only academicvoices I don't
particularlyinvite in. For I bring in a bit of
outside reading. My point is that even timid
students find it relatively easy to speak back
with conviction to President Bush, to the
Pope, to Adrienne Rich, the The New York
Times;but not to academic or scholarly writers. It's interesting to ask why this should
be. It's not because academics and scholars

have more authority-especially in the eyes

of most students. It must be something
about academic discourse. Of course it may
be that I should spend more time teaching
my students to talk back with authority to
academics, and David gives good direction
and Artifacts,
here in his Facts,Counterfacts,
but so far I haven't felt it as a high enough
priority to give it the time it requires.
3. Not knowing that David and I were going to publish these talks till fairly recently,
I used points numbered 4-6 in my essay,
"TheWar Between Reading and Writingand How to End It." RhetoricReview12.1
(Fall 1993).